Are NHL goalie unicorns gone forever? The changing nature of a once-premier position

Once upon a time, NHL goaltenders were among the singular stars of the game, and you could tell who they were with just a glance.

Ken Dryden, at 6-feet-4, towered above his contemporaries, a statue when the puck was in the opposite end of the rink, cool and collected when the action was right at his crease. Tony Esposito, a lefty with a butterfly style, quick and smooth, flashed his leather glove to spear pucks as they were headed to the top corner. Dominik Hasek, Gumby on skates, a lithe human Slinky, made acrobatic lunges and contorted his body every which way to make a save. Mike Vernon and Mike Palmateer, part of a generation of Mighty Mite goalies, relied on reflexes, athleticism and an ability to read and anticipate the play, to become generational fixtures.

They were distinctive in playing style. Their objective may have been the same — to stop the puck — but their methods varied wildly.

That was then, in the before times.

Now? The vast majority of NHL goalies play a similar style that revolves around blocking, not actively stopping, the puck. It’s a small, but nuanced difference. The change can be traced primarily to evolutions made in goaltending equipment and the explosion of goalie coaching. The net result: There’s little unique to separate the current generation of goaltenders, who try to use their size and the bulky gear they wear to cover as much net as possible and dare shooters to hit open spots.

The lack of stylistic variety doesn’t mean goaltending has gotten worse. Quite the opposite, actually. Goalies have never been harder to beat one-on-one, and getting good goaltending is as vital as ever to winning. But the emergence of goalie coaches — especially from a young age — has streamlined the position, closing the gap between the best and the rest, making it increasingly difficult to project which goalies will play at an elite level.

Adin Hill was third on the San Jose Sharks’ goalie depth chart less than a year before he finished third in Conn Smythe Trophy voting as playoff MVP, as he backstopped Vegas to a Stanley Cup. Jordan Binnington began the 2018-19 season in the American Hockey League, then led the St. Louis Blues to a title. Stories like this are becoming more commonplace, and the days of a goalie like Hasek leading the league in save percentage for six straight seasons while racking up five Vezina trophies seem long gone.

Is it a problem? Has goaltending lost its mystique, its allure, some of what made NHL netminders such popular figures with fans? Former NHL goalie and longtime scout Tim Bernhardt thinks so and he thinks he knows why, too.

“Goaltending, for me, is just so boring to watch,” Bernhardt said. “Blocking the puck is all they do. … It’s not the goalie that’s blocking the puck, it’s the equipment, and it doesn’t look like any fun to me and that’s why kids aren’t drawn to the position anymore.”

Bernhardt was picked in the third round of the 1978 NHL Draft by the Atlanta Flames. He was a standout goalie for three years with the OHL’s Cornwall Royals and went on to play 12 seasons of professional hockey, divided mostly between the Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs organizations. He then spent 28 years as a scout for the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, then with the Dallas Stars and Arizona Coyotes.

After four decades of watching goaltending evolve, he isn’t a fan of where things stand today.

“The comparison I’d make is to football,” Bernhardt said. “The top athletes all go to football. Patrick Mahomes was a baseball player who switched to football. Josh Allen was a baseball player who switched to football. They all want to play quarterback because quarterback looks like a lot of fun.

“My feeling is the opposite occurred with goaltending.”

Bernhardt believes the root of the problem can be traced to the innovation in playing style made by long-time goalie coach Francois Allaire, who had among his disciples future Hockey Hall of Famer Patrick Roy. Allaire’s influence created a wave of goaltenders who emerged from Quebec and followed Roy’s lead. By the time Jean-Sebastien Giguere led the Anaheim Ducks to the 2003 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils, the goaltenders all looked like the Incredible Hulk.

Patrick Roy’s success influenced many goalies of the next generation. (Denis Brodeur / NHLI via Getty Images)

Allaire was the goalie coach who brought in the style of getting into position, dropping into the butterfly and getting the puck to hit you. The dimensions of the equipment grew, and so did the goalies.

Half a century ago, in 1973-74, the average height of the top five goalies in save percentage was 5 feet, 10.5 inches. Last season, the top five goalies were an average height of 6-feet-4. (Over that same period, the average skater’s height went up 1.6 inches.) Only one goalie shorter than 6-feet has finished inside the top five in save percentage in the past 11 years (Nashville’s Juuse Saros in 2020-21).

When he played, Dryden was part of a generation of players who didn’t have a goalie coach, which meant “we had to figure out stuff ourselves.”
Now? Everyone who reaches the NHL level has generally had a goalie coach from the time they first strapped on the pads.

Former Dallas Stars goalie coach Mike Valley, who now instructs at Elite Goalies — a training program that works with amateur and professional netminders — believes a major hurdle for today’s generation of goaltenders is that they rely too much on technique and not enough on instinct.

“This over-thinking of the position is almost paralyzing at times,” Valley said. “The best goalies, or the best athletes in general, are the ones who have trained really hard, understand the technique, but haven’t lost sight of being able to have your own style and form.

“Now you have a bunch of athletes who don’t know how to manage their own games, and they’re so over-coached. You need to take responsibility for your own game, and when the puck drops and the pressure is on, you know how to manage emotions. You know how to thrive under chaos. I think a lot of that disappears with too much coaching.”

But according to Adam Francilia, a former San Jose Sharks goalie consultant who now works privately with many NHL goaltenders, there is a positive to emerge from Dryden’s before-and-after shift in netminding: It is attracting a different breed of athlete to the position, one that enjoys the problem-solving that goaltending in the modern era requires.

“It’s a much more difficult position, cognitively and neurologically, to play because there are so many more aspects that you have to be really good at,” said Francilia. “I think in order to be successful in that capacity, you need to have a pretty high neurological IQ.

“Goalies are such interesting athletes. They’re quirky and they’re goofy. … I love the fact that goaltending is where it is, because I love having to have the neurological intelligence to go with the athleticism it takes to be a goalie. It is definitely creating a very specific type of person that can be good.”

Francilia used Winnipeg Jets star Connor Hellebuyck as an example. He’s not the most physically gifted goalie, but he’s cognitively quick.

According to Francilia, the cookie-cutter nature of goaltending has taken a bit of the personality out of the position.

Connor Hellebuyck is one of the NHL’s top current goalies, but is he a big name? (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

“It’s not that there wasn’t technique. Dominik Hasek had great technique, he just did it in a way that was unique,” Francilia said. “Grant Fuhr had rhyme and reason to his play. It was just so different.”

These days, goalies navigate the crease and make saves in a similar fashion because it’s the most effective way to keep the puck out of the net. Unnecessary movement makes a goalie less efficient. However, technique can’t stop every puck. With all of the speed and skill on the ice, goalies will inevitably need to make stops outside of their structure and technique. That’s where many believe modern goalies are falling short.

In Valley’s mind, young goalies should be taught the fundamentals but from there, also be held accountable for what they do and don’t do on the ice. Forcing young goalies to think for themselves makes them better problem solvers.

“When a kid has that, they don’t start … putting blame elsewhere,” said Valley. “They look internally.”

Modern goaltending requires plenty of athleticism, sure, but at the highest level, differences can be minute. What separates the best from the rest is an ability to process the action in front of them, diagnose the problem — a scoring threat — and solve it.

“If you always have a teacher standing next to you telling you what the answer was, then you don’t develop that skill of trying to figure it out yourself,” Valley said. “That’s where creativity comes from. That’s where being able to connect the dots on the ice comes from.”

According to Dave King, a three-time coach of Canada’s Olympic team, who also coached the Calgary Flames and the Columbus Blue Jackets, there are two distinct problems in the current goalie development system. The first is that young players become specialists far too early. The second is that they are overcoached.

“When kids come up in the game playing different positions, their thought processes suddenly get broader,” King said. “They get a wider appreciation for the game.”

In 2005, King became the first Canadian to coach in what then was known as Russia’s SuperLeague and returned in 2014 to coach Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the KHL. King said he went to Russia originally to observe the Russian development system. In his second stint, he started to see changes in the way Russian goalies were being developed.

“I really believe one of the reasons their goalies are so good is they’re allowed to be more athletic when they’re young,” King said. “They’re not as rigid in positioning. They don’t start teaching a disciplined style until a certain age. They want the kids to become good athletes — mobile, agile. They want them to learn to read the game so they don’t over position them and make them robotic.”

One result of all the coaching and preparation, according to Bernhardt, is the gap between top-tier goalies and the rest has shrunk.

“Before, those top five or six guys were just so much better than everyone else,” Bernhardt said. “Now? Even the 25th or 30th goalies are all pretty good. The equipment and the style of play has closed the gap.”

As is the case in all sports, analytics are playing a larger role. With precise data on exactly how goals are scored, goalie coaching has improved at teaching techniques to stop them. In decades past, the best goalies largely taught themselves, giving those who developed effective techniques a distinct edge. The streamlining of the position through coaching has closed the gap, and it’s showing in the salaries of the top goalies.

In 2000, 10 of the top 50 salaries in the NHL were paid to goalies. Roy, Brodeur, Curtis Joseph, Fuhr, Tom Barrasso and Vernon were all among the highest-paid players. This season, there are only three goalies in the top-50 salaries. Carey Price — who hasn’t played in over two years — is one of them, so there are only two active goalies (Sergei Bobrovsky and Andrei Vasilevskiy) with top-50 salaries in 2023-24.

They’re also the only two inside the top-100 salaries. As recently as 2015-16, there were 16 goalies in the top 100 league-wide. As the position has become more difficult to predict due to parity, many general managers have shied away from giving goalies mega contracts.

There’s no better recent example than Hellebuyck, who was set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer. He has been the model of consistency, finishing in the top eight in goals saved above expected in five straight seasons, and leading the league three times in that span. He’s only 30 years old, and yet last offseason, the trade market for Hellebuyck was cold because of teams’ hesitancy to sign him long-term.

Hellebuyck ended up signing a seven-year extension with Winnipeg in October, but with an average annual value of only $8.5 million. That isn’t chump change, but in a professional sports landscape in which salaries continue to rise across the board, it’s notable one of the best goalies of his generation signed for far less than Price, Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy did before him, and only $1 million more than Roy made in 2001.

It’s not hard to see why. General managers look at what Hill did in Vegas, and Binnington did in St. Louis, and hope they can replicate it. There are more goalies playing in the NHL than ever before. Last season, 77 goalies started at least 10 games. That’s the highest total ever, and up 19 goalies from just nine years ago in 2011-12, when only 58 goalies saw that amount of action.

In some ways goaltending is in a good place. The technical evolution of the position has led to more goalies than ever playing at a high level. And yet, has the position become less fun to play and less of a marquee position because goalies can be schooled into competence with angles and blocking positions?

The ultimate goal is to stop as many pucks as possible, but if the position becomes too robotic with less to separate the greats from the rest, does it make goaltending less interesting to watch and give team executives fewer reasons to pay them handsomely?

Excellent goaltending is still required to win, and the winning netminder will always be bathed in glory. That hasn’t changed. Teams are just trying different strategies to find it, leaning into platoons of netminders in hopes that they find something that excels. What does it mean for the future of the position?

Dryden is optimistic. He now has grandchildren who play, and even if the modern goalie has become reliant on equipment and technique, Dryden believes the motivation to become a goaltender remains.

“You have this incredible equipment. You have this gladiator look. There’s something heroic about what you do,” Dryden said. “Those who want to be goalies still have good reasons to be goalies and still love to be goalies.”

Ken Dryden, a goalie icon of the past, remains optimistic about the future of the position. (Denis Brodeur / NHLI via Getty Images)

To choose to be a goaltender still requires a mix of valor and zaniness, just for different reasons than it did in the past. Goalies are no longer braving slap shots with questionable protection, risking life and limb in the name of saves. They are, however, facing the possibility that they’ll be cut loose for someone cheaper.

Skaters can blend in when they’re having an off night, or even manufacture success with effort alone. Skate hard and land a few big hits, all is forgiven. Goalies can’t outwork their bad nights, and there’s nowhere to hide in the crease.

No position plays a bigger role in wins and losses. The cost of every mistake is magnified, which makes success that much more difficult to sustain.

“Goaltending is not about whether you’re boring or not,” Dryden said. “It’s not whether you do it with flair. It’s about being effective. You can think of — and I can think of — lots of goalies who played with lots of flair who were absolutely not boring, but were mediocre and lasted a few years and that was it.

“It’s in the nature of the position that you’ve got to be dependable, reliable. You’ve got to find a way of stopping what needs to be stopped in the moment that it needs to be stopped. You’re always looking for the most effective goalie — and that’s true, whether it was 50 years ago, or whether it’s now.”

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic. Photos: Candice Ward, Doug Griffin / Getty Images)